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The Wilmot Proviso
At the end of the Mexican War, many new
lands west of Texas were yielded to the
United States, and the debate over the
westward expansion of slavery was
rekindled. Southern politicians and slave
owners demanded that slavery be allowed
in the West because they feared that a
closed door would spell doom for their
economy and way of life.
Whig Northerners, however, believed
that slavery should be banned from the
new territories. Pennsylvanian
congressman David Wilmot proposed
such a ban in 1846, even before the
conclusion of the war. Southerners
were outraged over this Wilmot
Proviso and blocked it before it could
reach the Senate.
Sectional Loyalty Over Party Loyalty
The Wilmot Proviso justified Southerners’ fears
that the North had designs against slavery. They
worried that if politicians in the North prevented
slavery from expanding westward, then it was
only a matter of time before they began attacking
it in the South as well. As a result, Southerners in
both parties flatly rejected the proviso. Such
bipartisan support was unprecedented and
demonstrated just how serious the South really
felt about the issue.
The large land concessions made to the
U.S. in the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe
Hidalgo only exacerbated tensions.
Debates in Congress grew so heated that
fistfights even broke out between
Northerners and Southerners on the floor of
the House of Representatives. In fact,
sectional division became so pronounced
that many historians label the Mexican War
and the Wilmot Proviso the first battles of
the Civil War.
The Slavery Debate
Although President Taylor’s silence on the issue
quieted the debate for about a year, the issue was
revived when California and Utah applied for
statehood. California’s population had boomed
after the 1849 gold rush had attracted thousands
of prospectors, while barren Utah had blossomed
due to the ingenuity of several thousand
Mormons. The question arose whether these
states should be admitted as free states or slave
states. The future of slavery in Washington, D.C.,
was likewise in question.
A great debate ensued in Congress over
the future of these three regions as
Southerners attempted to defend their
economic system while Northerners
decried the evils of slavery. In
Congress, the dying John C. Calhoun
argued that the South still had every
right to nullify unconstitutional laws
and, if necessary, to secede from the
Union it created.
Daniel Webster and Henry Clay,
on the other hand, championed the
Union and compromise. Webster in
particular pointed out that
discussion over the expansion of
slavery in the West was moot
because western lands were
unsuitable for growing cotton.
The Compromise of 1850
In the end, the North and South agreed to
compromise. Although Clay was instrumental in
getting both sides to agree, he and Calhoun were
too elderly and infirm to negotiate concessions
and draft the necessary legislation. This task fell
to a younger generation of politicians, especially
the “Little Giant” Stephen Douglas, so named
for his short stature and big mouth. A
Democratic senator from Illinois, Douglas was
responsible for pushing the finished piece of
legislature through Congress.
The Compromise of 1850 , as it was
called, was a bundle of legislation that
everyone could agree on. First,
congressmen agreed that California would
be admitted to the Union as a free state
(Utah was not admitted because the
Mormons refused to give up the practice of
polygamy). The fate of slavery in the other
territories, though, would be determined by
popular sovereignty.
Next, the slave trade (though not slavery
itself) was banned in Washington, D.C.
Additionally, Texas had to give up some of
its land to form the New Mexican territory
in exchange for a cancellation of debts
owed to the federal government. Finally,
Congress agreed to pass a newer and
tougher Fugitive Slave Act to enforce the
return of escaped slaves to the South.
A Northern Victory in 1850
Though both sides agreed to it, the Compromise
of 1850 clearly favored the North over the South.
California’s admission as a free state not only set
a precedent in the West against the expansion of
slavery, but also ended the sectional balance in
the Senate, with sixteen free states to fifteen
slave states. Ever since the Missouri
Compromise, this balance had always been
considered essential to prevent the North from
banning slavery.
The South also conceded to end the slave
trade in Washington, D.C., in exchange for
debt relief for Texans and a tougher
Fugitive Slave Law. Southerners were
willing to make so many concessions
because, like Northerners, they truly
believed the Compromise of 1850 would
end the debate over slavery. As it turned
out, of course, they were wrong.
The Fugitive Slave Law
Ironically, the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act only
fanned the abolitionist flame rather than put it
out. Even though many white Americans in the
North felt little love for blacks, they detested the
idea of sending escaped slaves back to the South.
In fact, armed mobs in the North freed captured
slaves on several occasions, especially in New
England, and violence against slave catchers
increased despite the federal government’s
On one occasion, it took several
hundred troops and a naval ship to
escort a single captured slave through
the streets of Boston and back to the
South. The Fugitive Slave Act thus
allowed the abolitionists to transform
their movement from a radical one to
one that most Americans supported.
The Underground Railroad
Even though few slaves actually managed to
escape to the North, the fact that Northern
abolitionists encouraged slaves to run away
infuriated Southern plantation owners. One
network, the Underground Railroad, did
successfully ferry as many as several thousand
fugitive slaves into the North and Canada
between 1840 and 1860. “Conductor” Harriet
Tubman, an escaped slave from Maryland,
personally delivered several hundred slaves to
Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Another major boost for the abolitionist cause
came via Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel
Uncle Tom’s Cabin , a story about slavery in the
South. Hundreds of thousands of copies were
sold, awakening Northerners to the plight of
enslaved blacks. The book affected the North so
much that when Abraham Lincoln met Stowe in
1863, he commented, “So you’re the little
woman who wrote the book that made this great
The Kansas-Nebraska Act
Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois, hoping to
lure transcontinental railroad developers away
from lands acquired via the Gadsden Purchase,
proposed instead to build the line farther north,
so that the railway would end in Chicago and
give his home region a huge economic boost.
But federal law required that the vast
unorganized areas in the middle of the country
first be carved into official territories before any
track could be laid.
To do so, Douglas rammed the Kansas-Nebraska Act
through Congress in 1854 to create two new
territories—Kansas in the South and Nebraska in the
North. According to the Missouri Compromise of
1820, both territories would have to be free because
they were north of the 36˚ 30' line. But Douglas, aware
that Southern legislatures would never approve two new
free territories, declared instead that popular
sovereignty would determine whether Kansas and
Nebraska would be free or slave. In doing so, he hoped
to strengthen his bid for the presidency in 1856 by
winning support from Southern Democrats.
Backlash Against the Kansas-Nebraska Act
Because popular sovereignty had worked in the
Compromise of 1850, Douglas assumed that the
doctrine would work in the unorganized territories as
well. Privately, he believed that slavery would never
take hold in Kansas and Nebraska because the terrain
was unsuitable for producing cotton. Popular
sovereignty, then, was merely a carrot to appease the
South. Douglas thus figured the act would please both
the abolitionists in the North and slave owners in the
South, bring development to Chicago, and increase his
chances for the party’s nomination in 1856 without
really changing anything.
But Douglas’s plan backfired.
Southerners—Democrats and Whigs
alike—jumped at the opportunity to
open Northern territories to slavery, but
Northerners recoiled, outraged that the
Missouri Compromise had been
violated. Riots and protests against the
Kansas-Nebraska Act erupted in
Northern cities.
Growing Antislavery Sentiments in the North
What Douglas had failed to realize was that most
Northerners regarded the Missouri Compromise to be
almost sacred. The publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin
and the brutal enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act
had by this time awakened hundreds of thousands in the
North to the horrors of slavery. Even those who
benefited from Southern slavery, such as textile
manufacturers, did not wish to see slavery expand
further west or north. The Kansas-Nebraska Act
succeeded only in shifting Northern public opinion even
further away from reconciliation with the South.
Border Ruffians vs. Free-Soilers
After the Kansas-Nebraska Act, thousands of people
moved into the territory. Most of them were simply
westward-moving farmers in search of better land, but
others swarmed there in an attempt to tip the balance in
the impending decision about Kansas’s free/slave status.
Thousands of proslavery Missourians crossed the state
line into Kansas when they learned that popular
sovereignty would determine the fate of slavery. They
grabbed as much land as they could and established
dozens of small towns.
These “border ruffians” also rigged unfair
elections, sometimes recruiting friends and
family in Missouri to cross over into
Kansas and cast illegal ballots. Others
voted multiple times or threatened honest
locals to vote for slavery. Afraid that
Kansas would become the next slave state,
Northern abolitionists flocked there too and
established their own Free-Soil towns.
Both factions even went so far as to
establish their own territorial capitals.
“Bleeding Kansas”
Inevitably, the two groups clashed. In one
incident, a hotheaded band of proslavery settlers
burned the Free-Soil town of Lawrence, Kansas.
In retaliation, the deranged John Brown and his
own antislavery band killed five border ruffians
in the Pottawatomie Massacre. Neither Brown
nor any of his followers were ever tried for their
crimes. Within a few months, Kansas was
plagued by marauding violent factions. This
rampant lawlessness and bloodshed earned the
territory the nickname “Bleeding Kansas.”
Charles Sumner
Blood was also spilled over Kansas on the Senate floor
when Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina
beat Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner brutally
with his cane. Brooks had grown so incensed over the
antislavery speech Sumner had delivered the previous
week that he decided to take vengeance on his own. The
beating nearly killed Sumner, who was forced to leave
the Senate for several years to receive medical
treatment. Brooks was hailed as a hero in the South but
vilified in the North.
Dred Scott v. Sanford
Just two days after James Buchanan became president in 1857,
controversy over the slavery issue struck again when the Supreme
Court declared the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional in the
Dred Scott v. Sanford case. In the infamous decision, the
enslaved Dred Scott sued his master for his freedom and that of
his wife and daughter. Scott had married a free black woman
while traveling with his master in the free state of Illinois in the
1830s. The two had a child but then moved back to the South.
Scott believed that he had been freed once he had crossed the 36˚
30' parallel and that his wife and daughter had been enslaved
illegally when they returned to the South.
However, Chief Justice Roger Taney, along with
a majority of the other justices—all but one from
the South—ruled that the Missouri Compromise
was unconstitutional because the federal
government had no right to restrict the
movement of property (i.e., slaves). Taney also
contended that Scott had no business suing his
master in a U.S. court, because that right was
reserved only for citizens. Taney hoped his
ruling would finalize blacks’ status as property,
uphold slavery, and end the divisive sectional
Northern Backlash
The Dred Scott ruling only exacerbated sectional tensions,
however. Whereas Southerners hailed it as a landmark decision
that would finally bring peace, Northerners were appalled.
Thousands in the North took to the streets to protest the decision,
and many questioned the impartiality of the Southern-dominated
Supreme Court. Several state legislatures essentially nullified the
decision and declared that they would never permit slavery within
their borders, no matter who ordered them to do so. Buchanan
himself was implicated when it was discovered that he had
pressured the Northern justice into voting with the Southerners.
Arguably, the Dred Scott decision had almost as great an effect on
Northern public opinion as Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
The Lincoln-Douglas Debates
In this atmosphere of national confusion,
relatively unknown former congressman
Abraham Lincoln challenged Stephen Douglas
to a series of public debates in their home state
of Illinois. Lincoln, hoping to steal Douglas’s
seat in the Senate in the 1858 elections, wanted
to be the first to put the question of slavery to the
voters. The “Little Giant” accepted and engaged
Lincoln in a total of seven debates, each in front
of several thousand people.
During the debates, Lincoln denounced slavery
as a moral wrong and argued that the “peculiar
institution” should be banned from the West
permanently. At the same time, though, he also
called for the preservation of the Union. Douglas
accused Lincoln of being a radical abolitionist
and articulated a new policy—the Freeport
Doctrine—stating that popular sovereignty in
the territories was the only democratic solution
to resolving the slavery problem. Even though
Lincoln lost the Senate race, the LincolnDouglas debates brought him to national
John Brown and Harpers Ferry
Although the economic depression of 1857–1858 put a
temporary damper on the slavery debate, the radical
abolitionist John Brown quickly revived it with another
violent incident. On October 16, 1859, Brown—the
infamous Free-Soiler who had killed five proslavery
men at the Pottawatomie Massacre in Kansas in
1856—stormed an arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia
(present-day West Virginia), with twenty other men. He
hoped the raid would prompt slaves throughout Virginia
and the South to rise up against their masters.
Strangely, though, the fanatical Brown had never
informed the slaves of his plan, so no uprising
took place, and Brown and his men found
themselves cornered inside the arsenal. A long
standoff ended with half the raiders dead and the
rest, including Brown, captured. After a speedy
trial, Brown was convicted of treason and
hanged. Before his death, he announced that he
would gladly die if his death brought the nation
closer to justice.
Brown’s execution was met with cheers in
the South and wails in the North. His raid
had touched on Southerners’ deepest fear
that their slaves would one day rise up
against them, and many in the South
viewed him as a criminal and a traitor of
the worst kind. Most Northerners, however,
saw Brown as a martyr, especially after he
so boldly denounced slavery with his final
The Election of 1860
With the parties split and compromise no longer
a solution, the election of 1860 was less a
national election that two sectional elections.
Most Southern states refused to put Lincoln’s
name on the ballot or acknowledge his
candidacy, and several even vowed to leave the
Union if Lincoln were elected. Few people took
this secession talk seriously, however, for the
South had been making similar threats for
The run-up to the election was intense as the four major
candidates crisscrossed the country discussing the
issues. On top of their traditional platform of higher
tariffs and internal improvements, Lincoln and the
Republicans added the promise of maintaining the
Union. The Constitutional Union candidate, Bell,
likewise promised to preserve the Union. Northern
Democrat Douglas delivered antisecession speeches,
and Southern Democrat Breckinridge defended slavery.
In the end, Lincoln won a resounding victory, with 40
percent of the popular vote. He won a total of 180
electoral votes, while the other candidates combined
won 123.
A month after Lincoln’s election, legislators in South
Carolina voted unanimously to secede; within several
weeks, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana,
Mississippi, and Texas followed suit. Despite “Honest
Abe’s” reputation in the North as a moderate, he was
vilified as a radical abolitionist “Black Republican” in
the South. Much to the dismay of anxious Northerners,
lame-duck president James Buchanan did nothing to
address the secession crisis. Lincoln also waited to take
action until he had officially become president.
The Confederate States of America
Meanwhile, delegates from the seven
secessionist states met in Montgomery,
Alabama, in February 1861 to form the
government of the new Confederate States
of America. They drafted a new
constitution; chose Richmond, Virginia, to
be the new capital; and selected former
Mississippi senator Jefferson Davis as the
Confederacy’s first president.
Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address
As both Northerners and Southerners waited to
see how Lincoln would respond, he calmly
announced in his first inaugural address that he
would do nothing. Rather, he reaffirmed the
North’s friendship with the South, stressed
national unity, and asked Southerners to abandon
secession. Moreover, he declared that the
secession was illegal and that he would maintain
the Union at all costs—but that he would make
no move against the South unless provoked.
In announcing that he himself would take
no action, Lincoln placed the responsibility
for any future violence squarely on the
South’s shoulders. He knew that Americans
in the North would support a war only in
which the Southerners were the aggressors.
Lincoln could thus continue to claim
honestly that he was fighting to defend and
save the Union from those who wished to
tear it apart.
Fort Sumter
Jefferson Davis, on the other hand, announced in his
inaugural speech that the South might be required to use
force to secure its aims, and that spring, the South made
good on its word. On April 12, 1861, General P. T.
Beauregard ordered his South Carolinian militia unit to
attack Fort Sumter, a Union stronghold on an island in
Charleston Harbor. After a day of intense bombardment,
Major Robert Anderson surrendered the fort to
Beauregard. South Carolina’s easy victory prompted
four more states—Arkansas, North Carolina,
Tennessee, and Virginia—to secede. The Civil War had
The Civil War
Complacency in the South
The fall of Fort Sumter was not a major battle,
militarily speaking: the Union troops surrendered
only because they ran out of supplies, and
neither side suffered any serious casualties.
However, the easy seizure of Fort Sumter
inspired complacency in the South: Southerners
misinterpreted Anderson’s surrender as a sign
that the Union was weak and unwilling to fight.
Lincoln’s lack of immediate response was
likewise misleading. The North appeared to
do nothing for months afterward—the next
battle wasn’t fought until July—and the
South interpreted this inaction as further
weakness. In reality, Lincoln used the
interim weeks to ready the military and put
the gears of the North’s war machine into
motion. The brutal war that followed turned
out to be far different from the smooth
sailing the South initially expected.
The Northern Economy
Ultimately, it was the North’s booming
industrial economy—assisted by the Morrill
Tariff, the Legal Tender Act, and the National
Bank Act—that won the Civil War. When war
broke out in 1861, almost all of the nation’s
factories were located in the North.
Manufacturers also increased production of
agricultural equipment to help the farmers in
the West produce more wheat and corn to feed
the troops. Oil production and coal mining
became big industries during these years as well.
Because the Confederacy had virtually no textile
factories, Confederate troops often fought in
tattered homespun uniforms. The South also had
precious few rifle factories, so its troops were
forced to fight with pistols, smuggled guns, and
even old Revolutionary War muskets instead of
the newer and more efficient rifles that Union
soldiers used. Furthermore, the South had the
misfortune of suffering severe droughts several
summers during the war, so its troops were not
as well fed as the Northern forces
The Confederate Government
Delegates from the first seven states to
secede—South Carolina, Mississippi,
Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Texas, and
Louisiana—formed the government of the
new Confederate States of America in
Montgomery, Alabama, in February 1861.
They wrote a new constitution, established
a new capital at Richmond, and chose
Jefferson Davis as president.
Jefferson Davis
Although Davis had had more political
experience than Lincoln—he had served as
secretary of war and as a U.S. senator—he
proved an ineffective commander-in-chief.
Unlike Lincoln, he underestimated the
importance of public opinion and as a result did
not connect well with voters. Moreover, his
nervousness and refusal to delegate authority
alienated many of his cabinet secretaries, cabinet
members, and state governors. As a result, he
often had difficulty controlling his government.
Preparing for War
After the seizure of Fort Sumter in April
1861, both the North and the South
prepared for war. The North had a distinct
economic advantage because almost all of
the nation’s factories were been located in
the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states. The
Union also had nearly twice the South’s
population and thus a larger pool of young
men to serve in the army.
Lack of Leadership in the North
However, the North’s new recruits were
largely untrained, and most of the best
military commanders had been from the
South. Abraham Lincoln offered
command of the main Union army to
Robert E. Lee, but Lee, though he
disapproved of secession, felt compelled to
fight for his home state of Virginia.
Rather than wait around for the enemy to attack him,
Lee made an aggressive push into the border states to
try to defeat the Union on its own turf. He also hoped
that a Confederate victory in Maryland would convince
the state legislature to secede. In September 1862, Lee’s
army met General George McClellan’s troops at the
Battle of Antietam, which resulted in more than 23,000
casualties—the bloodiest single day of battle of the
entire war. Lee was forced to retreat back to
Confederate territory.
The Emancipation Proclamation
Despite McClellan’s failure to follow up,
Lincoln nonetheless capitalized on the Antietam
victory by issuing the Emancipation
Proclamation that freed all slaves in the
Confederacy. The immediate practical effects of
the proclamation were limited: since it declared
that slaves only in the secessionist states were
free (not the border states, for Lincoln did not
want to provoke them into secession), it was
effectively unenforceable.
The proclamation did have a large political impact,
though, because it tied the issue of slavery to the
restoration of the Union. Indeed, reunification, not
emancipation, remained Lincoln’s most important goal
by far. He once remarked, “If I could save the Union
without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could
save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I
could do it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I
would also do that. What I do about slavery and the
colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save this
Union.” Lincoln received a lot of criticism from the
Peace Democrats and other groups for wedding the
goals of emancipation and reunification.
Despite the priority Lincoln placed on
reunification, he knew that a reunified nation
would not survive long if slavery still existed.
Slavery had been at the root of every major
sectional conflict since the 1780s, and the issue
had to be addressed. Even though the
Emancipation Proclamation failed to ban slavery
in the border states, it did mark the symbolic
beginning of the end for the “peculiar
institution” for every state in the Union.
Undaunted by his failure at Antietam, Lee
marched into Northern territory again in the
summer of 1863, this time into Pennsylvania.
There, he met Union forces at the Battle of
Gettysburg in early July. At the end of a bloody
three-day struggle in which more than 50,000
died, Lee was once again forced to retreat. The
battle was a resounding victory for the North and
a catastrophe for the South.
At the same time Lee was losing in the North,
Grant was besieging the city of Vicksburg,
Mississippi, in the West. Eventually, the trapped
Confederates caved in to Grant’s demand for an
unconditional surrender. This major victory at
the Battle of Vicksburg gave the Union control
of the Mississippi River and thus split the
Confederacy in half.
The Gettysburg Address
Lincoln commemorated the Union victory at
Gettysburg several months after the battle with a
speech at the dedication of a national cemetery
on the site. Though very brief, the Gettysburg
Address was poignant and eloquent. In the
speech, Lincoln argued that the Civil War was a
test not only for the Union but for the entire
world, for it would determine whether a nation
conceived in democracy could “long endure.”
The Election of 1864
Bitterness and uncertainty clouded the election of 1864
. Despite opposition from the radicals, the Republican
Party lukewarmly nominated Lincoln for a second
term. In a surprise move, Lincoln chose as his running
mate Democrat Andrew Johnson from the reconquered
state of Tennessee, hoping that Johnson would win him
votes from prowar Democrats in the North. Together
they campaigned on a platform for the South’s
unconditional surrender. Peace Democrats nominated
Lincoln’s old foe General George McClellan, who
wanted peace negotiations and settlement. In the end,
Lincoln managed to win 55 percent of the popular vote.
Importance of the Election
The election of 1864 was crucial because its outcome
would determine the entire direction of the war: if
Lincoln won, the war would be fought until the South
had surrendered unconditionally, but if McClellan won,
there would almost surely be a settlement. The election,
therefore, was also the Confederacy’s last hope for
survival. Although Lincoln believed he would lose—
even though the Union was finally winning, he thought
that most Northerners were against continuation of the
war—his reelection ultimately provided a clear mandate
to demand unconditional surrender.
The South’s Collapse
The South, meanwhile, was spiraling into turmoil. The Union
naval blockade, Sherman’s campaign in Georgia, lack of
assistance from Britain, worsening class conflicts, and the
collapse of the Southern economy were taking their toll.
Thousands were deserting the army, thousands more were going
hungry at home, and thousands of slaves were fleeing to Union
lines. President Jefferson Davis tried desperately to hold the
Confederate government together, but none of the states would
cooperate. In the final month of the war, the Confederacy grew so
desperate that it even began to offer slaves their freedom if they
would enlist in the Confederate army.
Union Victory at Appomattox
In April 1865, Ulysses S. Grant’s forces broke through
Robert E. Lee’s defenses and forced the Confederates
to retreat. The Confederate forces burned their capital
city, Richmond, behind them as they retreated in order
to render it useless to the Union armies. His men
malnourished and heavily outgunned, Lee chose to
surrender. Several days later, on April 9, 1865, Lee
surrendered to Grant formally and unconditionally at
Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia. Grant accepted the
surrender and provided the Southerners food for their
march home. Jefferson Davis and other ranking
Confederates, meanwhile, had been captured fleeing
Virginia. The Civil War was over.
Plans for Reconstruction
After major Union victories at the battles of Gettysburg
and Vicksburg in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln
began preparing his plan for Reconstruction to reunify
the North and South after the war’s end. Because
Lincoln believed that the South had never legally
seceded from the Union, his plan for Reconstruction
was based on forgiveness. He thus issued the
Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction in
1863 to announce his intention to reunite the onceunited states. Lincoln hoped that the proclamation
would rally northern support for the war and persuade
weary Confederate soldiers to surrender.
The Radical Republicans
Many leading Republicans in Congress feared that
Lincoln’s plan for Reconstruction was not harsh
enough, believing that the South needed to be punished
for causing the war. These Radical Republicans hoped
to control the Reconstruction process, transform
southern society, disband the planter aristocracy,
redistribute land, develop industry, and guarantee civil
liberties for former slaves. Although the Radical
Republicans were the minority party in Congress, they
managed to sway many moderates in the postwar years
and came to dominate Congress in later sessions.
The Freedmen’s Bureau
The president and Congress disagreed not only about the best
way to readmit southern states to the Union but also about the
best way to redistribute southern land. Lincoln, for his part,
authorized several of his wartime generals to resettle former
slaves on confiscated lands. General William Tecumseh
Sherman’s Special Field Order No. 15 set aside land in South
Carolina and islands off the coast of Georgia for roughly 40,000
former slaves. Congress, meanwhile, created the Freedmen’s
Bureau in early 1865 to distribute food and supplies, establish
schools, and redistribute additional confiscated land to former
slaves and poor whites. Anyone who pledged loyalty to the Union
could lease forty acres of land from the bureau and then have the
option to purchase them several years later.
Lincoln’s Assassination
At the end of the Civil War, in the spring of 1865,
Lincoln and Congress were on the brink of a political
showdown with their competing plans for
Reconstruction. But on April 14, John Wilkes Booth, a
popular stage actor from Maryland who was
sympathetic to the secessionist South, shot Lincoln at
Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. When Lincoln died
the following day, Vice President Andrew Johnson, a
Democrat from Tennessee, became president.
Reconstruction After Lincoln
Lincoln’s assassination seemingly gave Radical
Republicans in Congress the clear path they needed to
implement their plan for Reconstruction. The new
president, Andrew Johnson, had seemed supportive of
punitive measures against the South in the past: he
disliked the southern planter elite and believed they had
been a major cause of the Civil War. But Johnson
surprised Radical Republicans by consistently blocking
their attempts to pass punitive legislation.
Presidential Reconstruction
Like Lincoln, Johnson wanted to restore the Union in as little
time as possible. While Congress was in recess, the president
began implementing his plans, which became known as
Presidential Reconstruction. He returned confiscated property
to white southerners, issued hundreds of pardons to former
Confederate officers and government officials, and undermined
the Freedmen’s Bureau by ordering it to return all confiscated
lands to white landowners. Johnson also appointed governors to
supervise the drafting of new state constitutions and agreed to
readmit each state provided it ratified the Thirteenth
Amendment, which abolished slavery. Hoping that
Reconstruction would be complete by the time Congress
reconvened a few months later, he declared Reconstruction over
at the end of 1865.
The Civil Rights Act of 1866
A few months after the battle over the
Freedmen’s Bureau charter, Congress passed the
Civil Rights Act of 1866 . The act guaranteed
citizenship to all Americans regardless of race
(except, in an unfortunate irony, Native
Americans) and secured former slaves the right
to own property, sue, testify in court, and sign
legal contracts. President Johnson vetoed this bill
as well, but Radical Republicans managed to
secure enough votes to override it.
The Fourteenth Amendment
Shortly after passing the Civil Rights Act of 1866,
Congress drafted the Fourteenth Amendment to the
U.S. Constitution to ensure that the 1866 act would have
its intended power. Although the amendment did not
give former slaves the right to vote, it guaranteed
citizenship to all males born in the United States,
regardless of race. Republicans in Congress specified
that southern states had to ratify the amendment before
they could reenter the Union. In 1868, enough states
ratified, and the Fourteenth Amendment was added to
the Constitution.
Protections for Former Slaves
The Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the Fourteenth
Amendment were milestones in the fight to give former
slaves equal rights. The Civil Rights Act was the first
piece of congressional legislation to override state laws
and protect civil liberties. More important, it reversed
the 1857 Dred Scott v. Sanford ruling by the U.S.
Supreme Court, which stated that blacks were not
citizens, effectively legalizing slavery. In giving former
slaves citizenship, the Civil Rights Act also gave
them—at least in theory—equal protection under the
The ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment
guaranteed that from that point onward, no one
in the United States—even a Supreme Court
justice or president—could deny a black person
citizenship rights on the basis of racial
inequality. Constitutional law stood in the way.
Of course, true equality did not happen in a day;
the first real steps would not be taken for another
hundred years. But the Fourteenth Amendment
was a significant start.
The Northern Response
Ironically, the southern race riots and Johnson’s “Swing Around
the Circle” tour convinced northerners that Congress was not
being harsh enough toward the postwar South. Many northerners
were troubled by the presidential pardons Johnson had handed
out to Confederates, his decision to strip the Freedmen’s Bureau
of its power, and the fact that blacks were essentially slaves again
on white plantations. Moreover, many in the North believed that a
president sympathetic to southern racists and secessionists could
not properly reconstruct the South. As a result, Radical
Republicans overwhelmingly beat their Democratic opponents in
the elections of 1866, ending Presidential Reconstruction and
ushering in the era of Radical Reconstruction.
Radical Reconstruction
After sweeping the elections of 1866, the Radical
Republicans gained almost complete control over
policymaking in Congress. Along with their more
moderate Republican allies, they gained control of the
House of Representatives and the Senate and thus
gained sufficient power to override any potential vetoes
by President Andrew Johnson. This political ascension,
which occurred in early 1867, marked the beginning of
Radical Reconstruction (also known as Congressional
The Fifteenth Amendment
The Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments had abolished
slavery and granted blacks citizenship, but blacks still did not
have the right to vote. Radical Republicans feared that black
suffrage might be revoked in the future, so they decided to amend
the Constitution to solidify this right. They also believed that
giving blacks the right to vote would weaken southern elites, who
had regained political power in the South. In 1869, therefore,
Congress passed the Fifteenth Amendment, granting all
American males the right to vote. Congress also required
secessionist states that had not yet reentered the Union to ratify
the amendment in order to rejoin. By 1870, three-quarters of the
Union had ratified the amendment, and it became law.
Black Voters
After the amendment’s ratification, southern blacks
flocked to the polls. By the beginning of 1868, more
than 700,000 blacks (and nearly the same number of
poor landless whites) had registered to vote. Not
surprisingly, virtually all of them declared themselves
Republicans, associating the Democratic Party with
secession and slavery. Black civic societies and
grassroots political organizations began to sprout up
across the South, most led by prominent blacks who had
been freedmen since before the Civil War.
Soon, black voters gained majorities in South
Carolina, Alabama, Louisiana, Florida, and
Mississippi and were able to facilitate
Republican plans for Reconstruction. These
voters elected many black politicians in the
majority states and throughout the South:
fourteen black politicians were elected to the
U.S. House of Representatives, and two to the
Mississippi State Senate. These new state
governments funded the creation of roads,
hospitals, prisons, and free public schools.
Reaction from Suffragettes
The Fifteenth Amendment did not secure the
right to vote for all Americans: women still did
not have the right to vote, and leaders in the
women’s suffrage movement felt betrayed by
their exclusion from the amendment. Prior to the
Civil War, the women’s suffrage movement and
the abolition movement had been closely
related: both groups strived to achieve political
and civil rights for the underrepresented in
After the Union victory, prominent women in the
movement, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan
B. Anthony, saw a window of opportunity: they
believed that with progressive, Unionist support in
Congress, blacks and women would achieve
enfranchisement. Radical Republicans in Congress
believed otherwise. Republicans assumed that if
Congress granted all men and women the right to vote,
their party would lose support in both the South and
North. As it turned out, women would have to wait
almost fifty more years for the passage of the
Nineteenth Amendment that granted them the right to
Black Schools and Churches
Many freed blacks, previously forbidden to learn to read or write,
wanted their children to receive the education that they
themselves had been denied. The Congress-created Freedmen’s
Bureau, assisted by former abolitionist organizations in the
North, succeeded in establishing schools for thousands of blacks
during the late 1860s.
In addition, many former slaves established their own churches.
White southern clergymen had often defended slavery in their
sermons in the period before the Civil War. As a result, blacks
distrusted their white congregations, so they created their own as
soon as they had the opportunity.
Carpetbaggers and Scalawags
Meanwhile, some northerners jumped at the opportunity
to move to the South in the wake of the Confederacy’s
defeat. Commonly known as carpetbaggers because of
their tendency to carry their possessions in large
carpetbags, some moved from the North to promote
education, others to modernize the South, and others to
seek their fortune. White southern Unionists, or
scalawags, attempted to achieve similar aims.
Carpetbaggers and scalawags served in state legislatures
in every southern state during Reconstruction.
Despite efforts by white landowners to force blacks
back into wage labor on large plantations, emancipation
enabled southern blacks to rent their own plots of land,
farm them, and provide for their families. A system of
sharecropping emerged in which many former
plantation owners divided their lands and rented out
each plot, or share, to a black family. The family
farmed their own crops and rented their plot of land in
exchange for a percentage of their crop’s yield. Some
poor, landless whites also became sharecroppers,
farming lands owned by wealthy planter elites. By
1880, the vast majority of farmers in the South were
Unfortunately, the economic prospects for blacks under
the sharecropping system were usually poor. Many
former slaves ended up sharecropping on land owned by
their former masters, and the system kept blacks tied to
their shares—their rented plots of land—and thereby
indebted to white landowners. Moreover, because cotton
prices dropped steadily from about fifty cents per pound
in 1864 to a little over ten cents per pound by the end of
Reconstruction, sharecroppers’ incomes were meager.
Most black farmers were able to purchase items only on
credit at local shops—almost always owned by their
landlords—and thus went deep into debt.
The Black Codes
Despite the efforts of Radical Republicans in Congress, the white
elite in the South did everything it could to prevent blacks from
gaining civic power. In reaction to the Civil Rights Act of 1866,
every southern legislature passed laws to restrict opportunities for
blacks. These black codes, which ranged widely in severity,
outlawed everything from interracial marriage to loitering in
public areas. One code outlawed unemployment, which allowed
white landowners to threaten their tenant farmers with eviction if
they decided to give up their land. The black codes in Mississippi
were arguably the worst: they stripped blacks of their right to
serve on juries and testify against whites, and also outlawed free
speech. Other codes forced black children into unpaid
apprenticeships that usually led to fieldwork.
Southern whites passed these laws because they feared
black political influence, especially in states like South
Carolina where blacks outnumbered whites. Many racist
white southerners also worried that freed slaves would
seek revenge on their masters, rape white women, and
ruin the economy. Wealthy southern landowners, for
their part, supported the black codes because the codes
ensured that they would have a stable and reliable black
workforce. Some of the black codes forced former
slaves to sign contracts, requiring them to work for
meager wages, while some even required them to work
on chain gangs in the fields.
Once the Republican Party took control of
Reconstruction, they forced southern state
legislatures to repeal many of the black
codes. Nonetheless, many wealthy white
southerners continued to enforce the codes
unlawfully for years, even decades, after
The Ku Klux Klan
Despite the progress blacks made in the South after the
Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, racism still
existed, and angry whites sometimes resorted to
violence to intimidate blacks. The most notorious of
these initiatives was the Ku Klux Klan, a secret society
of white supremacists formed in Tennessee in 1866 to
terrorize blacks. Klansmen, who wore white hoods to
conceal their identities, harassed and beat blacks,
carpetbaggers, and scalawags, and sometimes even
conducted lynchings—mob killings of blacks, usually
by hanging.
The Klan often used these tactics to scare blacks
away from the polls during elections and to
punish those who did not obey their demands. In
one extreme case, Klansmen murdered several
hundred black voters in Louisiana in 1868.
Congress, realizing the need to protect blacks,
passed the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 to try to
curb the tide of violence and intimidation.
The Successes of Reconstruction
Reconstruction was a success in the sense that America,
after 1877, could once again be called the United States.
All of the southern states had drafted new constitutions;
ratified the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth
Amendments; and pledged loyalty to the Union.
Together, the Civil War and Reconstruction also settled
the states’ fights vs. federalism debate that had been
going on since the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions
of the 1790s and the Nullification Crisis of the 1830s.
As one historian noted, the United States before the
Civil War were a country, but the United States after the
war was a nation.
The Failures of Reconstruction
However, although Reconstruction was a success in a broad
sense, it was a failure in several specific ways. The swift changes
in political power in the South rendered useless most of the
legislation that Radical Republicans had passed through
Congress. Rutherford B. Hayes’s removal of federal troops from
the South in 1877 allowed many former Confederates and slave
owners to regain power, and this return of power to whites also
meant a return to the policy of the old South. Southern politicians
passed the black codes and voter qualifications and allowed the
sharecropping system to thrive—all with the support of a
conservative U.S. Supreme Court, whose key court rulings in the
1870s and 1880s effectively repealed the Fourteenth and
Fifteenth Amendments and the Civil Rights Act of 1875
As a result, by 1877, northerners were tired of
Reconstruction; weary of battling southern elites,
scandal, and radicalism; and had largely lost
interest in supporting black civil rights.
Theoretically, North and South reached a
compromise: black civil liberties and racial
equality would be set aside in order to put the
Union back together. As it turned out, blacks
would not regain the support of the federal
government until the civil rights movement of
the 1960s.